This was supposed to be Vanderbilt's resplendent week. At 16-20 and with five games coming up against lowly Alabama and Middle Tennessee State, the Commodores were on track to break over the .500 barrier and prime themselves for a darkhorse run in the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson Tide, however, had different plans.
The Diamond 'Dores lost two of three games at basement-dwelling Alabama, costing Vanderbilt a chance to join the SEC's middle tier of teams and putting a big damper on the season's postseason chances. Vandy will need to get over .500 overall order to qualify for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. After this weekend, they're 18-22 with 14 games left in the regular season. Those upcoming games include six matchups against two of the country's best teams, #3 Kentucky and #4 LSU. Tim Corbin's team will have to go 10-4 over that stretch to ensure that even an 0-2 performance in the SEC Tournament will leave them at .500 or better.
That's a tall task for any team, let alone one that has underperformed throughout the 2012 season. Vanderbilt will face three different squads currently ranked in the top 25 while fitting in four games against opponents who could be considered significant rivals (Tennessee and Louisville). So far, the team has gone just 2-13 against teams that are currently ranked in the top 25 of BaseballAmerica's rankings. This young roster will have to put together an epic turnaround to keep from missing their first NCAA Tournament since 2005.
While things look bleak, there's still room for this team to rally. Vanderbilt has the chance to make several statements as the season winds down thanks to a backloaded schedule (in fairness, the schedule was also frontloaded, with Stanford, Oregon, and San Diego - all top 20 teams - comprising three of the team's first four series). The 'Dores will welcome Kentucky and #22 Ole Miss to Hawkins Field in the coming weeks, and the team will look to ride that home field advantage to their biggest wins of the season. Additionally, games against in-state rival UT and constant postseason pest Louisville should be contests that this team needs little motivation for.
The only truly scary matchup down the stretch for Vanderbilt is a three-game trip to Baton Rouge against a surging LSU team. That's an intimidating showdown for a veteran team, let alone an underclassman-laden roster like the one Tim Corbin has managed in 2012. However, that trip into one of the SEC's toughest environments will also work wonders in hardening an inexperienced Commodore squad.
Vanderbilt already had plenty of work to do in order to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Friday and Saturday's losses to Alabama made that road even tougher and dealt a serious blow to the team's at-large hopes. The Commodores will have to rally hard against some of the toughest teams the SEC has to offer. It's not impossible, but the team will have plenty of issues to correct to get there. The starting pitching has been taking a beating, fielding mistakes are still a problem, and the team continues to lack a real power threat in their lineup.
Still, there's a real opportunity out there for a team as talented as this one. If anyone can coax out that talent en route to a surprising postseason run, it's Tim Corbin. Big wins against teams like LSU, Kentucky, and Ole Miss would be the resume fodder this team needs to put themselves on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble if they were to rise over .500 for the season. That's the goal on Natchez Trace, and now Corbin and his crew have got one month left to make it happen.